By: Jenny Foughner

“I’m playing some of the best poker of my life right now,” Vanessa Rousso told me excitedly as we sat down to chat outside the tournament area on Day Three of the Mohegan Sun leg of the North American Poker Tour. She was right: over the course of the day, Vanessa went on to double her chip stack and became the sole Pokerstars Pro to make it to Day Four. Impressive, to say the least.

It only took a few minutes of chatting with Vanessa Rousso to figure out that she’s incredibly smart (she graduated number one in her high school class and finished Duke in a mere two and a half years) , exceedingly ambitious (she took a break from law school to become a professional poker player, having only begun to dabble in poker at the suggestion of a college professor), and more than capable of kicking just as much ass at the poker table as her male counterparts (she has over $3.6 million in tournament earnings, and she’s been at this for less than a decade). And she’s no stranger to going head-to-head with the guys. “In law school, I was friends with a group of guys who did two things for fun: they flew planes and played poker. So I signed up for my piloting lessons, and I went out and bought every book I could on poker,” she explained to me, as if I needed more proof that she’s a renaissance woman who goes full-throttle after what she wants. Take note, guys: never underestimate the hot blonde at the table. (Obviously this holds true for poker and for life. Write it down Cut-and-paste it into another document, print it out, and carry it around with you.)

MM: What is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated game?

VR: You certainly can’t ignore the fact that I’m one of very few women in the game. When I’m sitting at a poker table, 90% of the time I’m the only woman at the table. I stick out, I stand out, people are looking at me, because if you’re the odd person out, people are going to pay more attention to you. It’s definitely a part of my career. I’d say it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I’m underestimated consistently, and that’s a huge advantage… I’m able to outplay my opponents who don’t think I’m capable of some of the moves I’m very much capable of. The disadvantage [is] related to the advantage of being underestimated. It’s hard for poker players in general to earn respect, because there are, in poker, a lot of one-hit wonders. It’s possible to get lucky in one or two events. You always wonder in the beginning of anyone’s career, ‘have they just gotten lucky so far? Or are they going to stand the test of time, be consistent, and have good long-term results?’ Women get that extra layer of having to jump through twice as many hoops as their male counterparts in order to earn respect. I have $3.6 million in tournament earnings, and I think that there are a lot of guys [who have] far less in tournament earnings but more respect from my professional poker-playing peers. That’s just something I had to learn to deal with emotionally.

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MM: How did you start playing poker?

VR: I learned how to play poker when I was five years old from my father. I grew up in a very game-oriented, competitive family. [My sisters and I] all played varsity sports of some sort; I was a varsity swimmer and a varsity lacrosse player, and I played intramural basketball and softball. I learned to play chess at five and backgammon at seven. One of the factors that influenced my tremendous appetite for winning was the fact that my dad never let me win at anything. I’d hear my mom yelling from the kitchen, “why don’t you let her win? She’s only seven, what’s wrong with you?” (she would have let me win), but [my dad] was the one who played all the games – that was how he interacted with us—[and] he said “no, then she’ll think that wins are handed to you”. The day finally came when I beat my dad, and when I did, I knew that I had earned that win. That was a tremendous feeling. I guess that’s the feeling I’m chasing my whole life with trying to earn success at the poker table, winning tournaments.

MM: What made you take it seriously as a career?

VR: At Duke, my major was economics, and I wrote my honors thesis on game theory. Game theory is the study of strategic decision-making. It’s not the formal application of games like Monopoly or Scrabble, it’s more [like], we conceive [of] interactions between humans as games, and reduce decision-making to mathematics to optimize behavior. That’s what I would do in college, and one of my professors mentioned that it’s a really useful skill to apply to poker, so I started playing online at the age of 18. I wasn’t that great at first. No one’s born knowing how to play poker. You have to figure it out. While I was in law school I started playing professionally and won $40k, then decided to play the world championships (the event where I came in seventh, my breakout event). The rest is history.

MM: Do you feel like you’re scrutinized because you’re a woman? Does that ever affect your concentration?

VR: I don’t know whether I developed this [skill] in poker or because I’m the kind of girl who’s always been friends with guys – even when I was little I’d always play capture the flag with the neighborhood guys, and then, you know, growing up, I was in debate, which was male-dominated, and in college the activities I did were always male-dominated, so I’m not sure at what point I developed this skill – but somewhere along the way I learned how to put up a wall (without doing so overtly) so that, although a guy might scrutinize me or look at me because I [stood] out or whatever, he didn’t feel comfortable pointing it out, or making it obnoxious or making it a distraction. Because I put up that wall, I’m better at blending in at the table. If you look at the way I dress at the table, too, it’s a little more sporty. I don’t try to accentuate the fact that I’m a woman and stand out even more than I already do.

MM: How did you learn to cope with having to work harder than some of the men you play against?

VR: I had to learn early on in my career to have a sense of worth that came from within and not from other people; to have confidence in myself; and that the only people whose opinions really matter are the people in my close circle – my husband [Pokerstars Pro Chad Brown], my parents, my sisters, my best friends. Those are the people whose opinions should matter.

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Keep an eye out for more from Vanessa and Chad later this week, and make sure to catch Vanessa and the rest of the Pokerstars Pros on ESPN2’s broadcast of the North American Poker Tour, Mondays 9-11pm EST (through June 7).