Queen of Hearts

&uotThe thought of a professional poker player usually conjures the image of a man grinding his life away at the tables, smoke surrounding his face, aged by the years spent in a windowless casino.

Certainly not the image of 24-year-old Vanessa Rousso, a law student at the University of Miami. But don’t let the image deceive you; if Rousso’s at the table, she’ll probably be walking away with your money.

Rousso did not follow a traditional path to enter the ranks of professional poker players. A high school valedictorian and a nationally-renowned debater, Rousso attended Duke University on a full scholarship. Not to rest on her laurels, she graduated cum laude in two and a half years, a Duke record. She decided to attend UM Law for post-graduate studies, and everything seemed to be in place for a gifted young woman to thrive in the world of academia. Little did anyone know what was on the horizon.

Just a game?

As an economics major, Rousso specialilzed in Game Theory, originally proposed by John Nash, who inspired the film “A Beautiful Mind.” The theory predicts how people will react in given circumstances. Often applied in the worlds of artificial intelligence and ethics, Rousso saw possibility when applying it to an unexpected arena. She decided to combine her academic studies and the newly-popular world of Texas Hold’em.

“[Game Theory] applies to a range of subjects, from the mating rituals of chimpanzees to nuclear deterrence policies to more multi-dimensional games like poker,” Rousso said. “It’s really fascinating to use it to study poker, because there’s the human element of bluffing that makes it really interesting.”

Leaving a Mark

With this newfound approach, Rousso put her theory into practice. She cut her teeth at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in nearby Hollywood, using lessons from class at the table.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the beginning.

“It took a while to figure out what the correct strategy was at first; it took a lot of trial and error,” Rousso said. “But then I went out and bought all the books and read every book on poker that has ever been written, and within a year, I was on my way.”

The jumping-off point came in 2005 for Rousso when she competed in her first big event, a World Series of Poker Circuit event in New Orleans. Always the overachiever, she reached the final table and finished seventh. She was starting to make her mark.

If 2005 was a great year for Rousso, 2006 was astronomical. It started at another circuit event, this time in February in Atlantic City, where her legend began to grow. After oversleeping, she was faced with either showing up late and taking a penalty, or sprinting to the casino. Ever the competitor, she chose the latter and threw on a bathrobe and a cowboy hat. In her new uniform, she finished fifth and made more than $17,000 in the process.

“I’d never pulled a stunt like that before or since,” Rousso said. ;But I’d rather play in a bathrobe than be late.”

Her big splash was to come two months later when Rousso staked $25,000 in the World Poker Tour championship, one of the biggest events on the poker calendar. Again, she stunned the field and finished seventh, topping such greats as Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth and Doyle Brunson, a combined 31 World Series of Poker bracelets between them.

Not only that, she walked away with more than $250,000 dollars-a spectacular showing for someone who had to finish a law exam the morning of the tournament.

This finish earned her the nickname “Lady Maverick,” after the title character played by Mel Gibson in the 1994 movie “Maverick.” In the film, Gibson must scrape $25,000 together to enter a poker tournament and prove that he’s truly the best. Some dramatic stories seem like they’re bound to be made into a movie; Rousso’s already was.

She’s clearly doing well but her background in economics allows her to see what’s ahead for her, on and off the table. Already featured in such high-profile programs as NBC’s “Poker After Dark” and sponsored by PokerStars, there are many possibilities for a young, charismatic female in the world of professional poker.

“Poker is a very immature sport; it’s in its infancy,” she said. “It’s going to grow and become more and more organized in the coming years. There’s an opportunity here for large-scale success, not just playing the sport, but also in endorsements and the like.”

Poker has slowed Rousso’s academic pace down a bit, as she now takes fall semesters off to play, then studies in the spring. She plans to receive her degree this May.

While it’s easy to think she will continue her meteoric rise through the poker world, as her past indicates there’s no telling where Vanessa Rousso could wind up next. Just pray that wherever the future may take her, it’s not at your table.

Matthew Bunch may be contacted at m.bunch@umiami.edu.

Vanessa Rousso’s Poker Tips

-Be selective with your hands: Bad cards usually don’t get better.
-Don’t be stubborn: Don’t be afraid to fold the small blind.
-Use position to your advantage: Weaker hands are better when you get to act last and see what other players are doing.
-Don’t let your emotions get to you: Other players love to see someone “on tilt.” It’s an easy way for them to make a lot of money.
-Don’t play over your head: Never involve yourself in a game you can’t afford.