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Learning from the best: Vanessa Selbst

"Nice hand!"

These are the mantra-like words I have started to associate with Vanessa Selbst. The expression can mean a compliment after a good play or the concealing of frustration after a terrible play. Or perhaps, she is just a terribly polite poker player.

Selbst is one of the most established female poker players around, and she especially captured my interest last weekend after finishing second in the WPT Borgata, only narrowly defeated by Anthony Zinno. While I can feel her pain at missing that victory, second place is not to be sniffed at.

Vanessa Selbst 2.jpg

I have come to the realisation that if I want to be capable of entering the 2014 EPT Barcelona, then I have a lot of kinks to iron out. Perhaps the best way to improve is to learn from the industry professionals. And where better to start than Vanessa Selbst? If she is not living proof that women can make exceptional poker players, then I don't know who is. So, I have been taking a closer look at her game play in order to figure out why she is so damn good and to see if any of her tactics will work for me.

One of the things that really inspires me about Selbst is her aggressive game play. As a maverick, she is not afraid to use large raises as a means of testing the waters. When she is committed to a pot, she is truly committed, even if she suspects she's coming off worse. After my experience of bubbling, this is something I can relate to. Where the standard is to play the good hands well and bluff when it's called, for Selbst, it is the opposite. Her standard game play is to bluff the majority of the time, so when a good hand pays off, it pays off big. She is the personification of the adage: Play like you've got the best hand. And to watch Selbst play, you'd be convinced she had pocket aces every time!

I've watched her play a lot of hands, and I have to admit that sometimes I was screaming, "No Vanessa, don't do it!" But what she does works! Time and time again, I have seen the better hands fold to the bluff powerhouse that is Vanessa Selbst. From this, I have learned two things.

1. Playing it tight does not automatically mean success.

2. When you decide to be aggressive, do it like you have balls of steel!

Vanessa Selbst PCA 3.jpg

Her style of play is a definite game changer, and this is why I love her! From my point of view, we need game changers, as they pave the way for future women players who want to play it their own way. By playing differently, and succeeding, she acts as a strong role model and is important to the progress of women poker players all around the globe.

I can identify with many of her views on poker. In a recent interview, she talked about teaching poker and emphasised how coaching over 70 students has helped her game. The idea that teaching poker makes you a better player is something that I have been experimenting with in my Ladies Poker League and can understand how it helps. The fact that she is so willing to put back into the poker community is admirable, too.

She also pointed out how much improvement she could see in herself as a poker player over the last few years, and openly admits it is due to experience and practice. While there needs to be some innate ability, she highlights how poker is a skill that can be learned. As a poker newbie, this is encouraging and reminds me how accessible poker can be.

Another thing that strikes me about Selbst is her intelligence; with a degree in Political Science and a law degree, she is no academic slacker. In fact, her counterparts have similar levels of education, and it really illustrates how important intelligence is in playing poker. It also helps debunk the myth that poker is a game for people who can't get a real job. And when we talk about innate talent in poker, I am beginning to realise it equates to a certain type of intelligence - that "deductive reasoning" kind. So, to hone my powers of deduction, I have started to do daily logic puzzles just like Selbst used to, anything to get that edge.

I am afraid that our views on poker are where the similarity ends between Selbst and me. While I can just about assemble flat-pack furniture, logic puzzles are not my strong suit. I tried to emulate her style of play, with her characteristic big raises and fearless use of low pairs, and in the short term, I found my stack increased. In the long run, though, my bullyboy tactics would inevitably be found out.

Vanessa Selbst.jpg

The beauty of Selbst, and the trick to using aggressive plays, is knowing exactly when to use them. As I have yet to develop the skill of reading hands to anywhere near Selbst's level, for me as a learner, this aggressive style of play will have to be used in moderation ... for the time being.

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