Vanessa Rousso '03

Don't Bet Against Her
June 1, 2011
  

Vanessa Rousso


Joe Giron

Vanessa Rousso never met a challenge she couldn’t ace. She began investing successfully in the stock market as a teenager, was class valedictorian and debate-team star in high school, started her own nonprofit charity organization at the age of twenty, and graduated from Duke in two-and-a-half years with an economics major and a political science minor, making the dean’s list every semester.

She also played poker on the side, a hobby she picked up as a five-year-old (by that point she had already mastered the Rubik’sCube). At Duke, she took every course she could find that explored game theory and brought her deepening understanding of calculated risks and strategic decision-making to what she considered a stimulating hobby. Once she was enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law and was old enough to play for money, she realized that her sideline diversion was literally paying off.

“I was planning on going into securities litigation,” she says, “but I realized that I was winning so much money playing poker that it was a career opportunity, and my previous ideas about a career path became things of the past.”

Today, Rousso is one of the top women players in the game. She has won more than $4 million—$3 million in tournament play and $1 million online. She’s a spokesperson for Team PokerStars and the Web domain and hosting company GoDaddy, and posed for the 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (“I saw it as a great opportunity to get myself in shape,” she says). Between tournaments and promotional appearances, she’s also pursuing her master’s degree in songwriting at the Berklee School of Music, where she’s already earned certificates in songwriting and digital music production.

Rousso, whose player name is Lady Maverick, says that she gets frustrated when she hears poker disparaged by people who don’t understand the intricacies of the game. Excelling at poker requires more than streaks of good luck, she says. It also requires an adept understanding of mathematical modeling, an intuitive feel for human behavior and psychology, and the ability to handle intense pressure.

“Think about what you would do to excel in any venture—you prepare, you study, you take it seriously,” she says. “Poker is the same way. You don’t just dive in and expect to play well by the seat of your pants.” Drawing on her entrepreneurial spirit, Rousso launched boot camps to teach poker philosophy and techniques. The intensive one- or two-day sessions cost between $300 and $500.

With her seemingly unbeatable combination of brains, beauty, and business savvy, Rousso is determined to make the most of her time in the spotlight, striving not only for personal bests in tournament play, but also lobbying on behalf of the poker industry. In 2007, she testified in front of Congress in favor of efforts to repeal the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

She’s also maintained the No Limit No Profit Initiative, the charity she established when she was still at Duke. The organization supports nonprofit research and programs that focus on decreasing the causes and impact of poverty worldwide, particularly among the world’s most vulnerable populations. “I’m a big believer in efficiency,” says Rousso of her ability to juggle so many pursuits. “Time is precious, and I have big dreams and big goals.”

Visit Rousso's interactive website.