On the clock: How Vanessa Selbst gets it all done

At one point in recent memory, Team PokerStars Pro Vanessa Selbst was fighting a three-front battle against time. She was at Yale finishing up her law degree, she was playing poker for insane amounts of money, and--believe it or not--she had a life in the real world.

Forget for a moment that--for most reasonable human beings--getting a law degree from one of America's finest institutions would be more than a full time job. Forget that Selbst was becoming a mid-20s millionaire playing on poker's toughest circuit, a task that can sap the mental and physical energy from the very best. She was doing both, maintaining a relationship with the woman she would eventually marry, and finding time to hit the town with her friends.

It's easy to think of Selbst as a superhero, and she very well may be (I've never seen her and Batman in the same place at the same time...), but if you look a little deeper into how she handles her life, you'll see how she managed to do it all--successfully, no less--and not lose her mind.


At first, it was easier for her. Although she already had a big reputation in poker, it wasn't a full time pursuit.

"I quit playing poker full time in order to go to law school, as I didn't think it was feasible to do both well simultaneously," she said.

During the first couple years of school, she only played online occasionally. She didn't play live tournaments unless she was on a semester break or the tournaments were close to Yale.

"Putting poker on the back burner was definitely the right choice. Doing so allowed me to fully immerse myself into my studies and channel my energy into establishing a life for myself at law school--working on law clinics, creating a close-knit friend group, and establishing healthy routines," Selbst said.

But then everything changed. The PokerStars North American Poker Tour traveled to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. It was just down the road from New Haven. Selbst went...and she won for $750,000. It was, at that point, her biggest score. Just a few months later, she got signed to a Team PokerStars Pro sponsorship.

"As I had given law school my undivided attention, I felt it necessary to give poker the same time," she said.

So she took a quick break--one semester--from Yale and focused on poker for a bit.

For a lot of students, getting a PokerStars sponsorship and having a pile of money would mean the end of their studies. Not so for Selbst. She was going to get her law degree no matter what it took. So, she started working to figure out how she could get it all done and not lose her mind.


Recently, PokerStars asked a few of its players to participate in an exercise. The results help explain how the brains of these highly successful people work to manage their time effectively.

Using author Stephen Covey's time management matrix, Selbst laid out how she handled fighting that three-front battle. She broke down everything into the quadrants below based on matters of urgency and importance.


You might look at that (it's just a screen shot from a document she was nice enough to fill out for the PokerStars folks) and think, "Well, sure, that makes sense. What's so cool about that?"

Well, that's exactly it. It clearly makes sense because Selbst was able to make sense of it. That's where a great many people trip up. A lot of people have a difficult time seeing the difference between importance and urgency.

Take, for instance, how Selbst looks at social media. Where a significant portion of her peer group takes to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. all day, everyday, you almost never see Selbst's face pop up in your Twitter feed (it will be a complete accident if she sees this article on Twitter, I guarantee you). She calls herself "notoriously neglectful" of social media, but she makes no real apologies for it. It's simply one of the things she doesn't see as necessarily important or urgent. The same thing goes for shopping, mundane household chores, and sitting in front of the tube. Not important, and certainly not urgent.

But that wasn't the end of it, because, Selbst still had to figure out how to prioritize the important matters in her life. Whether by trial and error or instinct, she made it happen: she was getting her law degree, she was going to have a poker career, she she was going to be healthy--both mentally and physically--while doing it.

She used a sleep app and tried to make sure she got eight hours of shuteye a night. She walked to campus, worked out in the Yale gym, and set aside time for friends.

"This was a huge part of law school and was super important to make time for," she said. "Being surrounded by a community is what keeps me truly happy, and happiness is integral to poker success."

Still, she had to fit in the non-urgent matters of importance. So she found a way. She didn't have time to keep her fridge stocked, so she ate on campus or grabbed a bite when she was out with friends.

"My refrigerator was often known as 'the beer fridge' with 50 bottles left over from whatever party I had recently had," she said. "It's also hard to keep a stocked fridge when you have a hectic travel schedule."

She studied for classes while on planes, and sometimes at the poker table. She used forums and Skype to keep up with any moves in poker strategy she needed to keep up with. When it came time to give a poker interview, she'd time it so she could do it while walking to class.

Somehow it all worked.

"I went back for the spring 2012 semester, and knowing I only had one more year to go, I took a lighter course load and un-enrolled from my clinics so I could skip classes regularly for poker tournaments," she said. "Much of my time was also spent writing a thesis paper, which enabled me to be on the road more often."

When it was all said and done, Selbst had earned her law degree, married the love of her life, and won a few more poker titles. In that time, she has earned more than $10 million in live poker tournaments, nearly twice the second most successful woman, Kathy Liebert. Selbst is also among the Top 25 most successful live tournament players in the world overall.

How does she do it all? Well, again, she might be a superhero, but a little time management doesn't hurt.

On Wednesday, Team Pro Online's Adrienne Rowsome opens up about how finds time to play poker with her first baby in the house.

is the PokerStars Head of Blogging
Brad Willis
@BradWillis in Vanessa Selbst