For a while, the name Vanessa Selbst was huge in two very different industries.
Selbst was a superstar poker player, a positive female role model in a largely male-dominated world. She is still the only woman ever to reach number one in the Global Poker Index, and she won three World Series of Poker bracelets. In total, her tournament cashes netted her close to $12m and made her the most successful female player in poker history. She was a regular around the tables of Las Vegas, described by Poker.org as home to some of the top card rooms in the world until she retired from the game in 2018, after 12 years at the top. Where did she go when she stopped appearing in Vegas, and what did she do next?
To find the answer, you must delve further into her career, as she graduated from Yale. She learned poker as a supplement to her studies and claimed she was never happy just playing poker. Instead, she also focused on civil rights cases, particularly police misconduct. Her experiences as a student led her down this path, as she explained: "In law school, I did actually get falsely arrested twice. Once I went to jail, and once I just had to get in the back of a police car, and both were completely bogus charges."
"It was just dehumanizing," she added. "Realizing this is what so many people have to experience every day ... that was what inspired me to go into police misconduct work."
In 2010, she founded Venture Justice, a private foundation that funded socially conscious startups and entrepreneurism.
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In 2010, she founded Venture Justice, a private foundation that funded socially conscious startups and entrepreneurism. She sat on the board of Urban Justice Center, an organization that provided legal advice to and advocates on behalf of vulnerable communities in New York City. Her profile and winnings were used to fund her activism and help her strive for a better world.
That idea of a better world led to her retiring through conflict as a poker ambassador. She was tasked with telling young people they should play online, yet it wasn't something she believed in. Given her ethical and moral background, it came as little surprise when she left the game that had provided her with a platform and the means to make a difference.
Where has the activist been since then? In 2015 she passed the bar exam. After leaving poker, she joined Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, whilst still fighting for the rights of the LGBT community, battling police misconduct, and advocating for prisoners' rights. As she told the NYTimes.com, the move did go against her beliefs. "I'm also anticapitalist at heart," she said, "so it doesn't really fit in with my values, I guess." It did fit with her need for a more stable life, though: she married her partner, Miranda, in 2013 and started a family during her poker hiatus. Still, her passion for helping people has never diminished, and her hedge fund role has not changed that. "Hopefully, if I'm good at this and I do well, then that's probably the most efficient way for me to support the causes that I care about."
However, she recently found herself back around the felt, making deep runs in the WPT Borgata Poker Open in September 2019 and the WPT FallsView Main Event in February 2020. The pandemic put paid to much competition after that, but she is expected to continue her return to the sport over the coming months.
Will that mean we'll hear more of the fabled poker activist in terms of her changing the world? It is likely, given her new standing as a mother. That often brings with it an increased perception of equality and a better world, and with her long history in activism, she'll likely want to pick up where she left off in 2018.