Sep 29, 2016
Vanessa Selbst: Making Poker Proud by Fighting for Social Justice
By RTR Dennis
The poker world knows Vanessa Selbst first and foremost for her stellar poker career, which includes $11.8 million in tournament winnings and 3 WSOP bracelets. But there's another side to Selbst that sees her fighting for social justice in the courtroom. That said, let's look at how Selbst is using her law career to make the poker world proud.
How Selbst Became a Poker Star and Graduated from Yale
Before she became a professional poker player, Selbst planned on focusing her energies towards law school. She entered the prestigious Yale Law School while using poker to pay for it.
But a funny thing happened...Selbst kept winning in poker again and again.
Her first major score came when she won a 2010 NAPT event along with $750,000. Just months later, she took down the Partouche Poker Tour Cannes Main Event and €1,300,000 ($1.82m). The following year, she won a 2011 NAPT Uncasville and $450,000.
While Selbst still wanted to be a lawyer someday, it was hard to overlook all of the success that she was experiencing on the poker scene. What ensued was taking a semester off to focus on her budding poker career along with a new PokerStars sponsorship deal. After settling her schedule to include both the game and law career that she loves, Selbst graduated from Yale.
"I’m a little bit weird within the poker world in that I have these other passions," she told the Bustle.com. "For me, I’m never really just happy playing poker."
What Kind of Law Does Selbst Practice?
As mentioned in the introduction, Selbst practices civil rights law and specializes in cases involving police misconduct. And personal experiences helped drive her towards this career path.
"In law school, I did actually get falsely arrested twice," she explains. "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. Realizing this is what so many people have to experience every day. That was what inspired me to go into police misconduct work."
Selbst Started Venture Justice with Her Poker Winnings
The 32-year-old lawyer doesn't just use her poker winnings to live a lavish lifestyle and shower herself with expensive gifts. She's also used some of her fortune to start a foundation called Venture Justice, which funds socially conscious startup companies.
"I knew that I wanted to do something with aspiring social entrepreneurs and people who want to make a difference," says Selbst. "And I wanted to be able to put my money into helping them do that.”
In addition to starting Venture Justice, Selbst is also a board member of the Urban Justice Center, which gives legal advice to the vulnerable communities of New York City.
"I just firmly believe that if you’re someone who has been given advantages in life that you have some sort of obligation to give back," says Selbst.
As if all of this isn't enough, the 32-year-old will also launch a fellowship through the nonprofit called Equal Justice Works. This fellowship will see her work with a graduating law school student on a project related to police misconduct.
Justice of the Blinds Poker Tournament
Selbst will combine her passions by holding a charity poker tourney with the Urban Justice Center. It’s called Justice of the Blinds and will raise money for Selbst's upcoming fellowship as well as the Urban Justice Center.
The tourney raised $160,000 for charity last year and looks to repeat the same success in 2016. Celebrities Richard King (Mad About You) and Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) have already paid the $1,000 buy-in to participate.
Once the tourney is over, Selbst will go back to her dual career of taking civil rights cases and busting people out of poker events - two skills that she thinks mix well together.
"A legal mind is very analytical and so is poker, it’s very analytical," she explains. "So the skill set that’s required to be good at those is somewhat related."