Vanessa Selbst on how to improve your game

Thumbnail image for PS Women logo.jpgTeam PokerStars Pro Vanessa Selbst is one of the most successful and respected tournament players in the world, with over four million dollars in tournament winnings and a World Series of Poker bracelet in Pot Limit Omaha (2008). Vanessa's victories include the 2010 Partouche Poker Tour and back-to-back North American Poker Tour events at Mohegan Sun. PokerStars Women caught up with Selbst on her European tour, which includes stops in EPT London, WSOP Europe and EPT San Remo.

PokerStars Women (PSW)- You're known as an exceptional hand reader--how did you develop this skill?
Vanessa Selbst (VS)-I think I developed that skill with talking with friends and really trying to get to the core of what the hand is about. I'm really interested in the theory of poker so it was all about figuring out the best lines to take. Being one of the old-school Internet players, I didn't have a lot of people to look up to see how they played.

Another thing that helped was I've coached over 70 students over the past five or six years. You have to figure out different ways to articulate similar points because everyone has such different styles.

PSW-So it's mostly hard work?
VS-There is definitely some degree to which speaking about poker comes naturally to me. I have a very natural ability to do deductive reasoning. That's always what I was best at-- I did logic games as a kid. Being able to break down a hand and parse it into its individual parts comes from some innate ability. Translating that is what comes from practice.

PSW-So can anyone be good at poker?
VS-Most very good poker players have some innate ability and some practice. I look back at how I played four or five years ago and I am so much better, just through practice and experience.

It's funny, every single year I get better at poker I become more humble about it. I no longer think that I'm the best poker player in the world. Four or five years ago I thought I was god's gift to poker. And now as I learn more and more about the game, I discover the complexities of it. People I used to think were bad because I would see them doing things that were unconventional---some of those players are bad, but some of them are doing things that are good and are just thinking about it in a different way. The more you learn about poker the more you become open-minded about it...and you realize how much of a learned skill it is.


PSW-Are you playing mostly live now? What about mixed games?
VS-Yes, I'm playing lots of live tournaments now. I've dabbled [in mixed games] 20/40 and 40/80-I'm probably beating 20/40 and breaking even at 40/80 but I haven't played a large enough sample to really know. So I'm okay, but I have to get better. I think it's important to play all types of poker if you want to call yourself a professional poker player. Up until now, I haven't had the time to be good at all forms of poker. I'm going to finish up law school in January and then hopefully I'll dedicate a lot more time to learning mixed games.

PSW-How important is confidence to getting better? For instance, you talk about how important it is to talk about hands frankly, but for a lot of people getting into the game, they may be afraid of looking bad. What advice would you give on that for members of PokerStars Women?

VS- Talking to friends is the single most important thing I did in my development as a poker player. Meeting friends around your level and talking about hands is something you have to do.

In the act of parsing out a hand, and talking about each step of it, you start to make discoveries. In order to be an elite player, or even to be a good player, you have to figure out why certain plays work. It's like in math, you don't want to learn just the formula, you want to learn the proof. It's the same exact thing in poker. You can learn a line, like "You want to check this street for pot control" or "this is a good spot to check-raise," but if you're not learning why they're working you're not learning the strategy on your own and how to apply it to new situations.

So I think through talking about hands with people, you learn why things work and learn to answer the question "what else can we do here?" It took me a while to be okay with looking dumb. I used to be more arrogant when I wasn't as good as I am now. I would be afraid to ever admit I was wrong. It was probably frustrating to talk poker with me sometimes. Nowadays I'm the first to admit if I played a hand poorly. It's easier to do when you are more confident.

PSW-What has being on Team PokerStars Pro done for your game?
VS-It's nice to have some notoriety in the poker world. People know who I am and it's nice to know that people know who I am because I can expect that they know what my image is. They often play differently against me because of it. Since being on PokerStars, I've also had the opportunity to play many more tournaments.

PSW-So you've played in a number of European Poker Tour events since signing. How do you approach an EPT like this one (in London)?
VS- I think I'm getting more into the swing of EPTs. I cashed the last two I played. I don't really have a set game plan, I have to adapt to the table.

Sometimes I'll be at a really bad seat and there will be two really aggressive players on my left, and I'll just chill out. They won't expect it. They're so used to me playing crazy, but I'll have two really crazy players to my left so it's not going to work. And people pay me off anyway because they don't realize I'm playing tighter.

It depends on my table dynamic. If I have aggressive players to my right and tighter ones to my left...I'm going to be playing tons of pots, because I love playing pots with aggressive players. When they're raising Q7 in the hijack, I'm just going to call on the button with most hands.

PSW-What do you mean by most?
VS-Well, I'll flat or 3-bet with fifty percent of hands probably. It really sucks to play Q7 out of position on most flops. The only reason they are getting away with raising with those types of hands is people are afraid of aggressive players, but I love to play against them. I think it's a great way to chip up in these deep stack structures.

PSW-How many people do you usually recognize at an EPT table?
VS- It really differs a lot. It could be anywhere from zero to six or seven. London is one of the tougher events so I'll probably have a few people I know.

PSW- What do you think of the women of Team PokerStars Pro?
VS-The women are all excellent players. Everyone has results to prove it. PokerStars doesn't hire team pros because of their pretty face. Everybody really knows how to play poker and they're all people I'd usually prefer not to have at my table.

PSW-Which would you prefer least at your table?
VS-That's tough... Maybe Liv (Boeree) mostly because I've told her a lot about my game, so I feel like she might play better against me.

PSW- Even though there are still few women in these events, it seems the numbers are increasing. What can we do to further improve the stats?
VS- There's no reason to be intimidated. Women can be just as good as men at poker. I think as more and more women do well, it will have an exponential waterfall effect.

Jennifer Shahade
@PokerStars in Team PokerStars Pro