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Vanessa Selbst: "In Our Society Women Aren't Supposed to Be Competitive"
Already the winningest female poker player of all-time - and one of the best players, period - there's not much in poker Vanessa Selbst has yet to accomplish.
Still, despite the comfort of her dazzling résumé and societal norms that might expect otherwise, Selbst remains one of the most competitive forces in the game.
She also continues to win. Against anyone, male or female. Over and over and over again.
In the midst of a trip to Prague this week that now includes a place in the final 10 in the EPT Prague High Roller, Selbst sat down with PokerListings Germany's Dirk Oetzmann and shared a few thoughts on what it takes to break through the glass ceiling in poker and more.
PokerListings: Poker is an "open" game but clearly attracts more men than women. Are the reasons sociological, biological, cultural or other?
Vanessa Selbst: There are no biological reasons. The reasons are purely rooted in the way our society is organized.
PL: Why are women not superior in any sport that’s open to both sexes? Why are men vastly more successful in open games in general?
VS: They are not vastly more successful in relation to the proportions in which they try. The problem is that in our society women are not supposed to be competitive.
If they are competitive it is viewed as a negative quality – as bitchy, out of line or as not attractive.
That’s why all the competitive qualities are stifled. It’s the same thing in business. If a woman is trying to be competitive, everybody will just talk about what an awful person she is, but if a man does the exact same thing, everybody likes how driven and how successful he is.
Poker is also an extremely competitive thing and women are simply not trained from a young age to have these qualities. This is changing a little bit today, maybe.
You see a few more women, but then look at the sheer amount of hatred and vitriolic talk that women like Hillary Clinton got when she was running for office.
How people were going on about how ugly she looked and man-ish and things like that, and all that just because she is powerful and successful and these qualities are just not respected in a woman.
PL: And this is in a context where looks don’t matter at all.
VS: Exactly. But that’s always the first thing they will talk about, whether it’s politics or a 2+2 thread where someone would talk about me or any other woman.
The first thing will always be the question if she’s attractive or not. What does that have to with anything? It’s a shame that looks are the most valued and respected thing.
Even once you become a pro, people value your attractiveness. You’re told to be as attractive as possible, so you can get a good sponsorship, and even when you have a sponsorship, it still seems that it is more important what you look like than what your results are.
PL: Most games are designed by men. Are they therefore mostly designed for men?
VS: No, I don’t think so. Maybe what you are getting at is the traditional image of a game like poker. The Wild Wild West where the women retired to do the knitting or the food, while the men had whisky and cigars and played poker.
There is definitely a cultural attitude that sees poker as a man’s game.
PL: What's your favorite sport outside poker?
PL: Favorite player?
VS: Rafael Nadal … (laughs) obviously. He actually was my hero before he got a contract with PokerStars.
I was sitting in the breakfast room at EPT Monte Carlo and he was there to play the Players Championship. I really wanted to talk to him but I didn’t dare, because I guessed it must be very annoying when you’re famous and people keep walking up to you.
One week later he was announced as a PokerStars player and I was really upset that I didn’t take the chance.
PL: What's your favorite place to play poker in?
VS: In Europe: London. It's the perfect mix of European culture and architecture. Also, it feels more like home than other European cities, partly because they speak the same language. There is something comforting in that.
My favorite place to play in the world would be, maybe Jersey, but really Las Vegas. The magic of the World Series still hasn’t been lost on me.
There's something about arriving in Vegas, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, right before you start your first World Series event every summer that is unique. There is something magical about that.
PL: Is legalization good for the players in your country? Or will the government ruin it by demanding high taxes?
VS: Right now, any regulation would be better than no regulation. Best-case scenario would be regulation with low taxes. I think regulated poker with low taxes would still be preferable … well, that’s not true ‘cause the government is corrupt.
In an ideal world, in which we would have a non-corrupt government, poker with regulation and a small tax would be better as it would provide oversight over the corruption that exists within poker, take corrupt companies like Full Tilt in pre-PokerStars times for example.
For today though, all we can hope for is that we find some form of regulation instead of there being no poker at all.
PL: Would you move to a different country to be able to play online?
VS: I moved already to Canada where I’m living part time so I’m able to play when I’m travelling. I don’t think I would move full time because I really like my time away from poker, too.
It’s very important for me to find the right balance between poker time and non-poker time. Many players suffer from being away from their families too long and I don’t want to be like that.
I have found a pretty good balance. It’s tough sometimes, and you need to make decisions. For example, I skipped the WSOP Europe. I skipped WPT Paris, I skipped that whole trip, and I was at home for two months straight.
I also skipped Florida and a lot of other tournaments, partly because I got married and I guess she would have been very upset had I not stayed. So, right now I am finding the balance, we’ll see how long it lasts.
PL: Do you want to start a family?
VS: Yes. Ultimately I would like to start a family. My wife is very understanding when it comes to me travelling a lot. We met in 2009 when I was just a law student. I had already played poker before, but I wasn’t really a pro until 2010.
My wife knew about it, because I think she googled me or something, although she didn’t tell me about it, but I didn’t even mention poker to her. She was basically duped.
Now she sometimes travels with me on the circuit, and she knows how important this is for me. In her words, taking that away from me “would be a very cruel thing," so she would never ask me to stop.
At the same time, it is of course difficult to raise a family when you are on the road a lot. So I’m looking forward to PokerStars coming back to New Jersey and whatever is going to happen in the States, so I can play more live poker and spend more time there.