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Vanessa Selbst: "What We Are Seeing Now is That People Do Care"
Vanessa Selbst was finishing a Political Science degree at Yale when poker intervened and sent her off on a slightly different career trajectory.
She continued on to a degree at Yale Law, where her passion for social justice began to take shape, but a few huge tournament wins steered her even further into the poker world.
A few years on - and $10m in career live tournament earnings in - Selbst is one of the best to ever play the game. She's the first woman to play the $1m Big One for One Drop, a WSOP bracelet winner and one of poker's most visible and well-spoken ambassadors in the mainstream media.
Her passion for social justice hasn't waned, though, by any stretch of the imagination. As she finishes her last steps to passing the bar exam - and is managing a deep run in the EPT Prague Main Event - PokerListings caught up with her for more on her future plans both in and out of poker.
PokerListings: Before you went into poker you studied law. Do you plan to go on to a career as a lawyer one day?
Vanessa Selbst: I'm studying for the exam right now, which will qualify me to be a lawyer. I'm not sure what kind of lawyer I’m going to be yet. I'm keeping my options open.
PL: What was the original plan before poker crossed your way?
VS: I wanted to be a lawyer but I hadn’t decided what kind. Then I won some local tournaments here and there, then I went to the Mohegan Sun and won that, too.
You know how you love poker when you’re running well, so obviously I was loving poker at the time, so I thought I can put off my career in law for a couple of years.
PL: Would you rather be a prosecutor or a defence lawyer?
VS: I don’t think I would work in criminal law. Back when I was studying I did actually think of becoming a public defender but playing poker on the side makes that virtually impossible.
I mean you can’t represent somebody in jail and then say ‘oh, don’t worry, just sit tight for a couple of weeks, I got to go to EPT Prague, you know’.
Still, if I had to choose, I’d be a defender.
PL: Maybe after you poker career.
VS: I don’t know if there will be an ‘after.' My plan is to do both as long as I can. In civil law, I guess I’m just going to take on cases to, you know, fight the power.
PL: Police violence in the US – like in Ferguson – is dominating headlines in European newspapers. Are they exaggerating? And is the outcry of the public justified?
VS: Yes, it is a big thing. Interestingly this touches on the area I used to work on and which was my biggest passion in law school. I was working on issues relating to videotaping police officers during misconduct.
The demonstrations and the outcry are definitely justified. This has been a problem for a very long time. People were getting killed before there was videotaping, but nobody cared because it wasn’t visible.
The officers would write into their report whatever they wanted and nobody would ever check. Now that there is video recording I think that people’s eyes have been opened. It’s a bad problem for everyone.
It’s bad for the public to have corrupt police officers or to have a feeling of racism but it’s also bad for the good police officers.
You know, I get a lot of pushback from people who tell me I would always talk badly about the police. The truth is I know that there are a lot of good police officers but the police culture is really bad and the way it interacts with the community, especially in the United States.
It creates a feeling of ‘us versus them.' I feel sorry for all the good police officers because they have an impossible job.
The people in the community are so used to having their rights abused they don’t see the police as someone who helps anymore. In New York City the police motto is “To Serve and Protect” but the feeling is the exact opposite.
Today, if you hear that a black person in a poor community had something stolen from them, and you would ask them ‘hey, why didn’t you go to the cops?’, they would just laugh at you.
Asking the police for help doesn’t even cross their minds. I’m hoping that with the technical development we’re taking a step in the right direction.
PL: Yet, there have recently been several cases of people being killed on camera by the police. It doesn’t really look like videotaping changes much.
VS: I still think it changes much. But point taken. The case of Eric Garner is really shocking. Same with the Michael Brown case.
What many people don’t know is that in both cases the police officers weren’t found not guilty by a court. They weren’t even given the chance to go on trial because a Grand Jury decided it was so obvious they weren’t guilty that they didn’t even have to go.
It was completely revolting.
Still, I’m happy that things like these are coming out and people see what’s going on. There is a lot more public interest now than in the past, when a cop beating a poor black person wouldn’t have gone viral because nobody even bothered.
I know it’s difficult to be optimistic with the way these recent cases happened, but I still am. What we are seeing now is that people do care. They're not afraid anymore that if they videotape an officer, he might go after them.
PL: And these videos also make it to NBC now.
VS: Exactly, and gives people more incentives to take videos. It’s a step in the right direction.
PL: What can they really do to solve the problem? Obviously you can’t just tell criminals and violent police officers that they’re doing wrong.
VS: That’s the important question. Look at the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. It was easier back then.
There were racist laws, so we had to get rid of them, and that was the answer. The movement persisted and the laws were changed.
Now it’s a different thing and a lot more complicated. The laws aren’t racist, but society, the culture, the entire attitude is.
And it’s not just racism. I think that classism is actually a bigger thing than racism. I think that most discrimination is against poor people, it just happens that most poor people are black.
There is a fundamental distaste against poor people engrained in society. We’ve been fed this idea about the American dream for so long – and Capitalism in Europe is really based on the same principles – that once you’ve made it you start to look down on those who haven’t. Like it’s their own fault.
For decades and decades the problem of income inequality has been growing in our society and, to be honest, I don’t know what the answer is.
PL: The number of black people today that are statistically going to jail at some point is now higher in the US than even in the 19th century.
VS: Yeah, the jail thing is special. I think that the income inequality issue exists in a lot of Western societies, also in Europe, but the rate of incarceration is a purely American thing.
We got that one completely locked up. We own that one and we’re not sharing it with anyone.
PL: Are people in the poker scene talking about issues like these?
VS: Not really. It’s frustrating sometimes because there are so many really bright people in poker that we should talk about these issues, but we rarely do.
PL: Do you generally approve of players making political statements like Olivier Busquet and Dan Colman with their “Free Gaza” shirts at EPT Monte Carlo?
VS: Let me put it this way: I completely understand why PokerStars didn’t want that, and I completely agree that PokerStars have the full rights to disallow that.
On the other hand I think as a player, if you have a platform, go for it. At least, Dan and Olivier triggered a discussion of global issues within the poker community.
It’s crazy that in this amazing, globalized time where we are all seeing the same issues like Gaza, Ferguson or Ebola on TV at the same time, people in the poker community would not talk about these issues.