WSOP 2016: Birthdays and bracelets with Vanessa Selbst

July 09, 2016

Overhead, Kenny Loggins’ voice is wailing from unseen PA speakers. He’s screaming about how he has this feeling that the times are holding him down. He’s gonna tear up this town, and he’s going to go footloose. It’s the entry music to Day 2 of the WSOP Ladies Event, and the disembodied Loggins is giving it all he has as the women begin to file in.

Among them is a woman who has a closer connection to the song than she might realize. After all, it was the soundtrack of her birth.

Loggins’ released “Footloose” in January of 1984 a month in advance of the movie of the same name. By March, it was the number one song in America. A few months later on this very day in 1984, as the song played over and over on FM radios around the country, Vanessa Selbst was born.

Now, I’m hovering over her as she arranges her chips before play begins. She’s working deliberately, and it’s interesting to see her process. She’s among the most feared poker players in the world, and even her chip arrangement is intimidating.

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One of the most intimidating stares in poker

I’m having a hard time raising my voice to call out her name when the lady in the two-seat does me a favor.

“You are wanted,” she tells Selbst, and nods in my direction.

Selbst is happy to talk. She’s in good spirits, but–a tennis fanatic–she wants to multi-task during the interview.

“Let’s talk in front of the Wimbledon,” she says and makes tracks for the tennis broadcast on a nearby TV.

It’s her birthday. She’s spent a lot of them here at the WSOP. One year, she went out on the lake in a rented boat. Other years she’s spent at her favorite restaurants. This year, she has no firm plans except sitting firmly in her seat and grinding for a gold bracelet.

“I’m not huge into birthday celebrations,” she said. “I think we can all understand that as we get older.”

Today, this 32nd anniversary of Selbst’s birth, marks a departure for her. In recent years, Selbst has chosen to be in the big $111,111 One Drop tournament. This year, she made a different choice, and it gave her the opportunity to do something she hasn’t done in ages. She entered a ladies event.

Tourneys dedicated to female-only fields have had their fair share of controversy in the past, but Selbst’ recent absence hasn’t been a matter of taking any sort of stand against them.

“I’m always happy to play this event,” she says. “It’s fun. It’s different. I was sad that I missed it the last few years.”

As one of the world’s top high-rollers, Selbst has always been faced with having to deal with an unfortunate scheduling conflict.

“Not many women play the really high stakes events, so they always put them on the same day,” Selbst said. “They always make me choose.”

This year, she made a different choice. Instead of dropping huge money into the One Drop, she decided to have some fun.

“I just really didn’t want to play high, high stakes tournaments this year. I’m taking a year off from them,” she said.

That’s how it came to be that today, on her 32nd birthday, Selbst started Day 2 with a top ten chip stack and a chance at another WSOP bracelet.

Ten years ago, just before her 22nd birthday, Selbst recorded her first World Series of Poker cash, a seventh place finish in a $2,000 NLHE event for $101,285. It was the beginning of a career that has since seen her win three WSOP bracelets and more than $11 million in live tournaments. Her entry to the WSOP came during poker’s biggest surge, and she rode the wave to become one of the biggest winning players in history. She did it all while the game changed wildly around her.

“Poker has changed a lot. I’ve changed a lot. I’ve learned so much more about the game. I’m a different player now than I was then–a much better player now than I was then. The poker players in general are better,” she said.

Meanwhile, she’s had a first-hand view of just how much the WSOP has changed since that time. Ten years of perspective gives her the opportunity to see this annual poker summer camp through the eyes of both a 22 and 32 year-old woman.

“The World Series itself has changed. It used to be everybody goes out to Vegas, you see a lot of friends, and it’s a lot of fun and partying, and whatever,” she said. “Now I think people are taking it more seriously. We come out here to work. Obviously you can have fun sometimes, but it’s much more focused on playing tournaments and taking it seriously.”

That’s the kind of perspective that comes from spending an entire early adulthood as one of the best in the game. And, while it’s 100% true, Selbst also realizes something else about the WSOP. It’s more than the place where she has spent a decade of birthdays. It’s more than a place where she has become an international superstar. It’s also a bit like an annual family reunion.

“It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of similar faces. The cool thing about the World Series, actually, is that a lot of people have moved on from poker. A lot of people who were pros ten years ago have moved on to other things, but they always come back for the World Series, so I love it here,” she said.

Fittingly, as Selbst retakes her seat, Loggins has shut up, and Sister Sledge is singing “We Are Family” overhead.

For a lot of people, spending a birthday at work would be, at the very least, dispiriting. For Selbst, though, it seems there are few places she’d rather be, and if she can manage to stay here all day, the WSOP may just give her one of the best gifts around, one that’s gold, shiny, and looks great on her wrist.

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is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Follow him on Twitter: @BradWillis. WSOP photos by


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